The sixth International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association for Latin America and the Caribbean (ILGALAC) Regional Conference will take place in the beach resort of Varadero. A number of parties and other events are scheduled to take place in nearby Havana, the Cuban capital, during the gathering.
Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who is the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX,) is president of the local committee that organized the ILGALAC conference.
Mariela Castro did not return the Washington Blade’s request for comment. CENESEX’s website prominently features information about the ILGALAC conference that includes a preliminary agenda.
“As the host country for the sixth ILGALAC Regional Conference, Cuba is not exempt from the problems of the region’s LGBTI communities,” states the organization. “The humanistic nature of the Cuban Revolution has focused on the human being in his teleological purposes since its beginning. Although the Cuban LGBTI movement does not have the organization of other international movements, the fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the country is now evident with more impact and achievements.”
Robyn Ochs, a bisexual advocate and writer who is a member of the MassEquality Board of Directors, will appear on a panel with Indian writer Vikram Seth and Víctor Hugo Robles, a Chilean LGBT rights advocate known as “El Che de los Gays” or “Che (Guevara) of the Gays.”
Mariela Castro is scheduled to moderate it.
“I’ve long been interested in transnational conversations,” Ochs told the Blade, noting the conference is the first time she will have traveled to Cuba. “I hope to learn a great deal.”
Wilfred Labiosa, who is another MassEquality board member, will also travel to Cuba and present at the ILGALAC conference.
“We can learn so much; how to organize and mobilize as a cohesive group instead of people pulling their way to the way that they want and not as a group,” he said. “The Socialist regime can teach us so much about organizing and mobilizing.”
Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a gay Cuban blogger who writes under the pen name Paquito el de Cuba, will attend the conference alongside CENESEX and another group affiliated with it. He told the Blade in an e-mail he feels the gathering will allow Cuban advocates to gain a better understanding of international LGBT rights movements.
“It will increase visibility for the continents’ other LGBTI movements and Cuban efforts and strategies towards respect of freedom of sexual orientation and gender identity and stopping discrimination motivated by them,” said Rodríguez.
ILGA Co-Secretary General Gloria Careaga Pérez told the Blade earlier this week from México there is “a great enthusiasm” on the part of the Latin American and Caribbean advocates who plan to travel to the island.
“I think that ILGALAC 2014 will be a great experience from which there is a lot to learn,” she said. “Latin America today is considered one of the most promising regions for the LGBTI community. The movement has matured in a clear way. In the great majority of the countries there has been a respectful dialogue with the government that has made it possible for not only legal advances, but the orchestration of public policies and a greater visibility and respect for the LGBTI condition.”
Anti-LGBT discrimination, violence persist amid legal gains
Same-sex couples are currently able to legally marry in Mexico City, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, the Dutch Caribbean the French islands of Saint Martin, Saint Barthélemy, Guadeloupe and Martinique and French Guiana. Marriage, civil unions and other forms of relationship recognition for same-sex couples have begun to gain traction in Colombia, Perú, Chile and a number of other Mexican states in recent months.
Two women in Puerto Rico in March filed a federal lawsuit seeking recognition of their Massachusetts marriage in the U.S. commonwealth. Mariela Castro has previously stated she supports marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Many Latin American countries include sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression in their anti-discrimination and hate crimes laws, but anti-LGBT violence remains a serious problem.
A report that Global Rights, D.C.-based international human rights group, published late last year noted trans Brazilians accounted for slightly more than half of the 300 reported LGBT murder victims in the country in 2012 — and an estimated 52 percent of them were people of color. The murder of a cross-dressing teenager near the Jamaican resort city of Montego Bay last summer further underscored the rampant anti-LGBT violence and discrimination that exists in the country.
Jamaica and Belize are among the 11 English-speaking countries in Central America and the Caribbean in which homosexuality remains criminalized, although their sodomy laws have been challenged in court.
“We’re very keen as a Caribbean regional network to participate in the conference, to be well-represented and to bring Cuba into the regional network,” said Colin Robinson of CAISO, an LGBT advocacy group in Trinidad and Tobago. “We’re eager to partner with relevant partners on the ground in Cuba.”
Kenita Placide of United and Strong, Inc., a St. Lucian LGBT advocacy group, will attend the ILGALAC conference.
Both she and Robinson have applauded Cuba on its LGBT rights record that includes the passage of a proposal late last year that seeks to amend the country’s labor law to ban anti-gay employment discrimination.
The Communist Party of Cuba in 2012 approved a resolution against anti-LGBT discrimination.
Mariela Castro’s supporters note she successfully lobbied the Cuban government to begin offering free sex-reassignment surgery under the country’s national health care system in 2008. They also credit Cuba’s condom distribution campaign and sexual education curriculum with producing one of the world’s lowest HIV rates.
“We have been following the success of Cuba and how they are open to work with and recognize LGBT persons,” Placide told the Blade on Friday. “CENESEX, although not involved in a lot of the Caribbean work directly, is looked to as a leader in activism on gay rights, thanks to the guidance of Mariela Castro.”
“Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of the current Cuban president, has been able to influence that,” added José Ramón, a Venezuelan LGBT rights advocate who has lived in Spain since violent clashes between supporters of President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition broke out in February. “It is also positive because a good part of the movements that will take part in the conference are sympathetic to the Cuban government.”
Robles described the ILGALAC conference as a “unique, significant and historic opportunity.”
“At the same time, Cuba and its diverse organizations and public institutions have become open and shown solidarity with ILGALAC activists in an example of valiant social, political, community and institutional integration,” he told the Blade.
Critics of Cuban government criticize conference organizers
ILGALAC has come under criticism from those who feel the conference should not take place in Cuba because of the country’s human rights record.
“Hosting a conference on LGBT rights is just another farcical attempt by the Cuban regime to pretend they care about anyone’s rights,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told the Blade in a statement. “The sad reality is that the Cuban people are harassed, beaten and bullied for having a point of view that differs from the regime’s. This desperate move to seem tolerant does not even come close to obscuring the repressive reality on the island.”
The Florida Republican who was born in Cuba last May blasted Equality Forum, a Philadelphia-based LGBT advocacy group, over its decision to honor Mariela Castro.
Ignacio Estrada Cepera, who founded the Cuban League Against AIDS in 2005, was also critical of ILGALAC’s decision to hold its conference in Cuba.
His wife, Wendy Iriepa Díaz, a trans woman who used to work for CENESEX, told the Blade last summer while in D.C. they feel Mariela Castro “totally manipulates the (Cuban) LGBT community.”
Estrada repeatedly noted during the trip the Cuban government forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.
Leannes Imbert Acosta of the Cuban LGBT Platform claimed authorities in 2012 detained her as she tried to bring materials to CENESEX on a planned exhibit on forced labor camps to which the government sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military service during the 1960s. Former Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2010 apologized for sending gay men to the camps known as Military Units to Aid Production or by their Spanish acronym UMAPs.
Estrada, Iriepa and other Cuban LGBT rights advocates who work independently from Mariela Castro and CENESEX say they continue to face harassment from the authorities.
“This event is the worst response to what is happening on the island and a mockery to the true Cuban LGBT community,” Estrada told the Blade from Miami.
Two staffers from Caribe Afirmativo, a Colombian LGBT advocacy group, who are already in Havana are meeting with members of the Free Rainbow Alliance of Cuba who are not affiliated with CENESEX. The group on Friday issued a press release that criticized Mariela Castro and ILGALAC for not inviting them to the conference.
“The Cuban authorities, through the National Center of Sexual Education (CENESEX,) through its director’s political use of family ties and personal aura, try to control, manipulate and win international legitimacy as promoters and guaranters of rights for the LGBTI community.”
Hernando Muñoz of Colombia Diversa, another Colombian LGBT advocacy group, told the Blade during a telephone interview from Bogotá, the country’s capital, before traveling to Cuba for the ILGALAC conference that he is aware of criticisms over the island’s human rights record. He and Mariela Castro attended a 2010 conference in Madrid during which he said she tried to say Cuba was “perfect” and “everything was going great for homosexuals.”
“I don’t think so,” he said.
Other conference attendees criticized the U.S. over its policy towards Cuba that includes a decades’ long economic and travel embargo.
“Cuba is more than what some group of (Miami) Cubans say it is,” said Labiosa. “It is a country full of rich culture, friendly people and a government that wants to bring change under these horrible conditions perpetuated by this relic U.S. embargo.”
“It is a 55-year-old dinosaur that should never have been implemented, was never effective and should long ago have been lifted,” added Ochs. “It is arbitrary: Why Cuba and why not countries such as Iran, Nigeria, Russia, Uganda or all of the other countries with abysmal human rights records, specifically toward LGBT people.”